A Proustian conversation with William Friedkin

Published by Nicolas Ragonneau on

Photo de William Friedkin
William Friedkin © Pat York

A year ago, I translated William Friedkin’s text In the footsteps of Marcel Proust into French, published in September by Editions La Pionnière under the title Dans les pas de Marcel Proust, with a preface by Jérôme Prieur. As Arte celebrates the director with the broadcast of a long documentary, Friedkin Uncut – William Friedkin, cinéaste sans filtre, and that of French Connection (on June 1st), I took the opportunity to ask for an interview with the mythical director. I spent an hour on the phone with this warm and enthusiastic man. The supposed interview was much more like a conversation, which could have gone on for hours, and of which I deliberately kept the somewhat disjointed aspect. William Friedkin has had some health concerns in recent months, and his voice on the phone is that of a convalescent. But I don’t even need to begin our exchange with a question : as soon as it comes to Proust, this Francophile gets excited and becomes inexhaustible.

William Friedkin : I wanted to thank you for the translation !

It’s been a pleasure and an honour ! Happy to see that you love the book…
Oh very much ! And so pleased it’s out there. And I’m grateful to you.
I’ve never expected to write it, I was asked by The New York Times. Some people there knew that I have been an avid reader or Proust and had been to a number of locations connected with la Recherche and so they ask me to write about it. I did the best that I could.

I especially liked your story with Jeanne Moreau reading you la Recherche.
That’s how I got into. I guess we were married at the end of the 70s and we lived in Lagarde-Freinet in Var. Very honestly I’ve heard of Proust but I had never read a word of Proust before that, you know, thinking that it was certainly not something I could experience… and then she started to read it to me and to simultaneously translate and I found it just exceedingly beautiful and deep and I’m still rewarded by… I still read Proust every day. There is a new translation, you know. Du côté de chez Swann has been translated by a very very fine British woman novelist called Lydia Davis and it’s much better than the early translation. It’s much more in the language and style of Proust.

It’s the new translation Penguin released in 2002, supervised by Christopher Prendergast.
So you’ve experienced la Recherche in 4 different ways, in French, English with Jeanne Moreau’s instant translation, in English again with Scott Moncrieff’s version and still in English with the new translation…

Yes, Scott Moncrieff’s translation has been finished by someone named Terence Kilmartin, and that’s the one I read. Of course… in its own way, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at it in English, it’s quite beautiful but it’s not the style of Proust… much more flowery.

I see what you mean but at that time translation was a bit different than it is now, as you probably know.
I’m a bit surprised you still read Proust everyday !

Oh yes ! And now, because I’ve been through the books, I read various passages. Sometimes I read a passage out of context, it’s like listening to music when you want to hear a favourite passage you know. So… I read it every day and it’s really strange because… I obviously had nothing in common with Marcel Proust, not at all. We were raised at a different time, we have very different experiences and upbringings but I found a certain… not similarity but kinship and humanity in the work of Proust that very much reach me from the first sentence. I began to understand that Proust was universal, that you didn’t have to grow up in that time and  in Paris or attend something like the Lycée Condorcet or living in Illiers. It was just the humanity of it that reached me and I’ve had obviously similar emotions.

That’s the incredible thing with Proust, something pretty unique, everyone can be moved whether you’re American, Indian or even African maybe. I’ve never met any reader from Africa, but I am sure there are some.
I wouldn’t be surprised because once you discover Proust, it’s a lifetime discovery. If you give yourself to it… you have to give yourself to it ! You can’t pick it up like a good novel and read it and then move on. I find it, to be honest with you, the only thing I can compare it with are passages from the New Testament.

The book competes in a way with the Bible, by its dimension, its metaphysical background…
This book is a miracle because if you look as I did at a lot of the earlier writings of Proust I mean as when he was basically a gossip columnist for Le Figaro, you know, there’s nothing there that hints at what was to come. Nothing !

That was a surprise to see this big talent emerging from such, let’s say conventional beginning. No one could expect that from this man.
No, and it was interesting to me originally when he submitted the first volume it was turned down by Gallimard and André Gide, who said it was the biggest mistake of his life.

« […] all of the experiences I’ve had sort of became cristallized by Proust. »

I can see you read André Gide’s Journal. Did Proust help you when you were at the hospital ?
Always. Proust has always helped me. It’s been like a place to go, it stimulates my intellect and my mind and my memory and all of the experiences I’ve had sort of became cristallized by Proust and I don’t know whether you’re familiar with a book that came out a few years ago, it was in English and it was called How Proust can change your life by Alain de Botton and what Botton says, and I’ve read all this after I’ve been to all the locations I could find that were associated with Proust. I read this book and the conclusion of the book, which I admired very much, that you should not pursue Proust’s life or influences, you should read the book and then go out and write your own book ! Your own book about your childhood and memories. I loved the book and that final message crushed me because I had done just that. I’m sorry but it was very rewarding to me. Have you been to Illiers ?

Yes, of course.
It’s just a wonderful little town, quite apart from being Combray. It’s a lovely little place to visit ! 

What about la Recherche adapted to the screen ? Have you seen Schlöndorff and Ruiz movies ?
They don’t impress me. Proust cannot be filmed ! It’s like a chemical reaction that goes from the experience of reading into your mind where it becomes something else, it’s something that’s very personal to every reader and the characters are in your mind’s eye, you don’t want to see actors running through this ; and then like any great novel if you reduce it simply to the plot it doesn’t mean anything. I understand why people want to make a film about Proust, it’s a great story, much too difficult to handle, even in multiple parts, I wouldn’t want to do that, I would NEVER undertake to do that. You know I work early on with Harold Pinter. I directed a film, The Birthday Party, and I got to know Pinter very well and later he wrote a Proust  screenplay. I don’t think it was ever filmed, It was going to be by Joseph Losey but they were never able to get it going. I read Harold’s script and it’s very good but it’s like… an impression. It’s a very minor particle of the whole, even though he tried to make it more universal and cover more ground.

Have you ever spoken to Pinter about Proust ?
I did years ago. I worked with Pinter, I guess it was… 1966 or 1967 I worked with Harold for a year and I learned a great deal from him and we used to speak about Proust. Harold was an acolyte, an early admirer and a friend of Samuel Beckett. So Harold was profoundly influenced by Beckett and Proust. But I never got into Proust until I was married to Jeanne.

Jeanne was the Sheherazad of your Proustian Nights.
No question ! It was a revelation. She read so beautifully I could visualize and it penetrated and I could experience it.

« Once you read Proust, it becomes a part of your life. »

I can imagine how magical it was. Was she familiar with the text before she was reading to you ?
Oh yes. Like most Proustians, it was a part of her life. Once you read Proust, it becomes a part of your life. There is not a day that I don’t have some memory or recollection or desire to read Proust.

It’s very moving but you know, I thought your favourite novel was Cien años de soledad
Oh, that’s great, that’s a fantastic contemporary novel. I knew Garcia Marquez, I stayed with him at his home in Mexico City. I had some unusual experiences with him. Very unusual. But again, as with Proust I did not want to make a film out of Cien años de soledad. Anymore than I would want to do a film of Beethoven’s fifth symphony or ninth symphony. It’s something to be experienced and cherished.

Has Proust influenced the way you made movies after discovering it with Proust ?
It only caused me to make my attention more focused. I certainly was not influenced to write or tell a story like Proust. I mean, I’m an American and I have an american way of approaching film and you know, I admired novels by Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and I still do, up until the time of Proust. But Proust in fact changed my life. Not to try to emulate, it would be foolish. Among other things it shows how an … works how he takes one thing over here and moved it next to this over there and rearranges his environment. And it’s all there, everything is there, Aunt Léonie’s house and the park and the church of St-Jacques… You know I also went to the Lycée Condorcet, I went to many places, I went to One-O-Two Boulevard Haussmann, where the corked-room was, I just went to the building unannounced, I went up to that floor, it was an office used by the president of an insurance company and he knew that the room he was in had been Proust’s room and he had a print of the Jacques-Emile Blanche painting on the wall behind his desk, but he was very pleased to welcome me. And I had a wonderful experience at the Lycée.
The thing where I got hooked, where Jeanne first hooked me when she read it to me and translated was when little Marcel stands outside his bedroom door, waiting for his mother to come up and give him his good night kiss and the father comes up and stays. I burst into tears everytime I read that.

Does the fact that Proust was half Jewish mean a lot to you ?
No, I know that he was, I don’t know how important it was in his life. There were many things much more important.
Is Proust read to any extent in France today ?

O yes, of course. I think Proust is our Shakespeare, he has this kind of size.
No question, he ranks with the very great writers of any language.

Do you think that loving Proust to this extent can be a kind of possession ?
Possession ? It’s more like obsession and dedication. The only thing I can compare it with is, for example, my love of Beethoven, and Vermeer. There is the wonderful passage where he writes about first having seen Vermeer’s view of Delft, with the little bit of sunlight peeking on to that building across the way. And I’ve seen the view of Delft. I’ve seen it in person. Yes, it’s like a moment of memory that is caught for all time in the way that la Recherche captures memories. Vermeer was such a great painter. You know those are the people that have profoundly influenced my life now, which is much different than anything to do with those people. The other thing that impresses me so much about Proust is how he believed in himself.
The Tadié version is terrific and Tadié’s biography is wonderful.

Do you have a message for him ? 
Please tell how much I admire his book. To me, having read everything I could get, it’s the most definitive book about Proust, the one I believe the most. And please tell him it’s been a great experience to read. Do you remember a French actor who later moved to America and became an American movie star named Louis Jourdan ?

Sure, You mention him in your text.
Yes. When Louis died a few years ago, I used to visit him when he was sick at his home. He was the only one I knew who could talk intelligently about Proust. And he had a version of Tadié’s book which he had written in the margins. He wrote many notes in the margins of Tadié’s book on every page and he left me that book when he died.

That’s a nice gift.

It’s one of my most priced gift. Louis was definitely a knowledgeable Proustian, far more than me. Louis was a Proustian scholar.

Do you still try to convert your friends to Proust ?
I have tried to give Proust to many of my friends, and they can’t make it. They don’t have the commitment and it takes commitment. This is not an ideal red for pleasure, you have to concentrate ; every word counts.
I felt very close to Proust in Illiers-Combray.
You know Nicolas, it’s unbelievable, he was very sick with asthma and lying up in bed every night and writing his masterpiece.

Finally, what a strong man !
I don’t know  your feelings but I believe in God, I believe that this book was divinely inspired.

Well, I don’t know whether he would agree about this…
No he would not ! To him it was inspired by Ruskin !

Categories: Entretiens


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